Top Tips from My Weekly Series
My 89-year-old mom lives over 2,000 miles away. I’m often on edge when the phone rings at odd hours. I never know when I might have to pack my bags and fly across the country for a health emergency. I have a sibling who lives near her, but I know she feels calmer when I’m there and I know that I have more peace of mind being near her at such a time. I’ve done it before.
Whether our loved one lives with us, in the same time zone, or thousands of miles away, the stress of having a loved-one who requires some level of care can be stressful and take up a lot of focus of our lives. There are often important decisions that need to be made involving assistance in their home, where they reside, medical procedures, medications, and so on, as well as the desire to be there when crisis strikes.
I have created a weekly series on my website and Facebook page, Tips for Caregivers Near and Far, based on my professional work with seniors and caregivers for over twenty five years, as well as my more recent role of being a long-distance caregiver. Many caregivers may have already figured out some or all of these and have their own helpful tips to share. I welcome any tips that readers want to share. Meanwhile, I hope there might be at least one new piece of information here that might be helpful to you, if you’re a caregiver, or that you might be reminded here of something helpful that you’ve forgotten. This blog include my top five tips, so far.
Caregiving can be very isolating and lonely. You may feel, as many caregivers do, that you are completely alone in your situation, that others don’t understand you, and, because of the work involved in caregiving, you might spend a lot of your time isolated from friends and family members. Often, resentment builds as you watch your friends or even family having a good time, while you feel unable to join in because of having to stay with your loved one. Or, perhaps, you feel that you can’t join in because you have nothing interesting to talk about, having spent a good part of your day dealing with the issues of caregiving. This can also apply to long-distance caregivers, spending large periods of time immersed in researching and phone calls, especially during emergencies.
You need to know that you are not alone. There are many people just like you who are dealing with the same issues, the same feelings, the same ups and downs, and even the same sense of isolation. If you reach out to connect with those people, you will not only benefit from having what all humans require for emotional and physical wellness, social connection, but you will likely learn some things that can help you with your caregiving.
There are many support groups for caregivers that you can join. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging to find out where there’s a support group nearest you. Can’t make it in person? There are also caregiver support groups in real time on-line. If you’re beginning to feel burned out and depressed, you might also benefit from some supportive counseling with a mental health professional. There are all sorts of resources out there for you to take advantage of. You don’t need to be an island.
This is critical in order to maintain your own mental health and physical health. Statistics show that the stress of caregiving often causes physical illness, depression, and anxiety in the caregiver. Don’t be a statistic. In addition, in order to make good decisions about your loved one’s care and/or to provide support for any siblings or loved ones who are helping with the care, it’s important to find a way to create calm for yourself. After all, whenever there’s a new situation, we often go into the “fight or flight” or stress reaction, releasing stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) so that we can take immediate action.
Even if you can only spare five minutes to focus on your breathing or several one-minute meditations throughout the day, it will have a very powerful effect to reduce the lingering stress, when you’re not needed to act. You can use imagery, imagining yourself surrounded by white light and filled with golden light or imagining yourself as a mountain, standing solid on the earth. Take some slow deep breaths in and let them out slowly. Listen to relaxing music or listen to an audio recording of the sound of ocean waves and set your rhythm of your breath to the rhythm of the waves. Get out in nature and take time to smell the flowers. All of this will help you to stay well and create joyfulness, vitality, and inner peace for yourself so that you can be the best caregiver possible, as so that you can be the best you possible.
Gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to shift our own perspective about what can be an, otherwise, stressful situation and to adjust our attitude to joyfulness and inner peace. For me, gratitude for every day that my mom has stable health, makes the small hassles in life that much smaller. Gratitude for every moment I get to spend with her, even if that means not taking exotic vacations so that I can, instead, use the time and money to fly to visit my mom a few times per year, puts everything else into a different light.
“What you focus on expands,” states Oprah Winfrey. Having gratitude for what we have and looking for the silver linings in the less-than-ideal situations bring us feelings of optimism, peace, and enthusiasm to keep us on this trek as a peaceful warrior.
Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology and researcher at the University of California–Davis, completed extensive research in the area of the effects of gratitude on our emotional and physical wellbeing. His overall finding has been that gratitude is what gives life meaning. Among his findings, was that people who kept gratitude journals felt physically healthier and had a more optimistic perspective.
Yet, an attitude of gratitude is something that we must make a conscious effort in order to cultivate. Keep a gratitude journal to cultivate your attitude of gratitude. Write down three to five things, big or small, daily that you feel grateful for. See how you feel at the end of one week of keeping this journal.
Whether your loved one lives with you, in the same time zone, or thousands of miles away, there are often big decisions that need to be made involving their care, living situation, medical procedures, medications, etc. Often, the right choices are not at all clear. There are many choices, frequently none of which are “perfect” and you will be asked to decide — or to help your loved one decide — which is the best decision that fits for them.
Being responsible for such heavy decision-making about issues that can be so unclear can certainly keep any of us up at night and cause us to become anxious and confused. Here are some ways to wade through the muddy waters:
- Get as much information as possible. Talk to professionals, research on reliable websites, talk to friends, neighbors, and any other caregivers you can find who might have had experience with the same issues. Talk to your loved-one’s doctors, physical therapists, paid caregivers, etc., and get second opinions. Read books related to the topics at hand.
- If you’re still feeling confused and anxious about the decisions, take a break. Take walks, exercise, meditate, go out in nature, taking your thoughts off of the subject for a short period of time. This will give your mind a chance to quiet down from the anxious thoughts and allow your inner knowing, your higher wisdom, to process all of the information you’ve been given and to find the answer that best fits for your specific situation. The answer may come to you as a feeling of being shouted out by your inner self, “this is it!,” or it may come as a whisper.
- If this still doesn’t work, spend time, again, quieting your mind, and then imagine that you’ve made a decision. See and feel what life is like after that particular action has been taken. Now quiet your mind and imagine what it looks like and feels like after making the opposite decision. This often gives greater insight.
- Finally, remember that there are no perfect decisions and we only discover mistakes after the decision has been made and didn’t work out. Most of us don’t own a crystal ball and cannot predict with 100% accuracy how it will work out, no matter which way we go. As I wrote about in my tip, Tip #10 — Forgive Yourself, “We all make mistakes. We’re human.” Don’t be hard on yourself for doing the best you could to figure out the right course of action.
You’re trying your very best to care for your loved one, whether they live with you, down the street, or on the other side of the country. This might include helping with daily activities of living, making sure that they’re getting the proper medical care, or having their emotional/social needs fulfilled. Yet, there will always be those who say you’re doing it wrong.
While being open to constructive criticism can always be helpful in learning how to do whatever you’re trying to do better, there will be times when it feels that, to others, no matter what you do will be wrong. So, how do you deal with these criticisms and even verbal assaults, especially when they come from friends, family, or partners?
“Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream,” wrote don Miguel Ruiz in his book, The Four Agreements. Proving our rightness also doesn’t help the situation. The momentary thrill of winning an argument, if that actually happens, is just that: momentary. It doesn’t bring joyfulness within, nor does it help in being a better caregiver. It serves, instead, to increase your grief and separation from each other.
The most that we can ask of people in our life and of ourselves is that we all do the best that we’re able to at this moment. Author of the bestseller, You Can Heal Your Life, Louise Hay wrote, “Forgiveness opens our hearts to self-love…That person who is the hardest to forgive is the one who can teach you the greatest lessons. When you love yourself enough to rise above the old situation, then understanding and forgiveness will be easy. And you’ll be free.” Anger and resentment burns up our energy and keeps us stuck. Forgiveness releases this anger and increases our ability to feel joyful and peaceful.
As Sufi poet Rumi, wrote, “Out beyond the ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.”
Stay tuned for more Tips for Caregivers Near and Far.
Check out Dr. Mara’s internationally best-selling book, The Passionate Life: Creating Vitality & Joy at Any Age, now available in paperback and on e-book!
Stay tuned for Dr. Mara’s on-line course, Living the Passionate Life, launching in mid-2019!
And check out: DrMaraKarpel.com, a one-stop-shop for information about all of the above!
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